Jane Austen proposes Emma to her literary agent

December 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

We could imagine literary agents of today finding very little to their liking in an outline of Emma. What other writer would have contented herself with such unpromising material? What heroine’s life is narrower than Emma’s? How thinly peopled the book is. And how few people are young. We are tantalised with talk of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, but a long time elapses before they appear on the page.

No reader need feel oppressed by Emma’s life. True she is rich, but an Emma who had to worry about money could never be Emma Woodhouse. Her riches do not add any dash to her life. There is no social whirl: Emma’s life could be described as dull beyond endurance.

Yet what an interesting tale is made of Emma. Can we fail to be amused at Mr Elton’s comical proposal in the carriage (Chapter XV, Vol. I)? Does not Harriet Smith’s giving up her sentimental treasures ( court-plaister and pencil end which Mr Elton had used, Chapter IV, Vol. III) make us say “So girls were like that then too.”  We would not swap that scene between Emma and Mr Knightley (Chapter XVIII, Vol. I) where they disagree about Frank Churchill’s duty to his father for a more dramatic one. Life at Highbury is as rich and full as ordinary life, and as dull too. But for a reader Emma is not dull.

Literary Agent:  How does all the action start?

Jane Austen: Her governess (Miss Taylor) has just got married, so Emma is at a loose end.

Literary Agent: Is there a romance in the offing?

Jane Austen: Well a stranger, Frank Churchill, is expected but he cancels by letter.

Literary Agent: In the first chapter?

Jane Austen: No, in Chapter XVIII, Vol. I.

Literary Agent: Does she have sisters and a terrible mother?

Jane Austen: There’s just her father, and a married sister who does not live locally.

Literary Agent: He’s funny, isn’t he?

Jane Austen: Rather a bore about his imaginary ailments. His philosophy is ‘The sooner every party breaks up, the better.’  (Chapter VII, Vol II)

Literary Agent: She has a few friends?

Jane Austen: There was Miss Taylor, now Mrs Frank Weston, but she makes a new friend at the beginning called Harriet.

Literary Agent: Just one friend?

Making the commonplace into something compelling is a great art. Jane Austen weaves something wonderful out of the dullness, the trivialities and the annoyances of daily life.  Is there another writer who can make as much out of as little?


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